A Crash Course For The Gop In Education

Capitalizing on issues such as vouchers and school choice, Republicans make inroads on Democratic turf

African American leaders and Newt Gingrich, an avowed foe of affirmative action, rarely see eye to eye. But on Oct. 30, the conservative Speaker of the House stood shoulder to shoulder on Capitol Hill with liberal Representative Floyd H. Flake (D-N.Y.) and the Reverend Jarrett Ellis, grand-nephew of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to promote a bill that would provide vouchers for poor kids to attend private and parochial schools. "Doesn't every child of every background in every neighborhood deserve the right to go to a school that their parents believe succeeds?" asked Gingrich as Flake, Ellis, and dozens of black schoolchildren from a church-run academy nodded approvingly.

Sure it was a photo op, but it was one that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, their education policy amounted to calls to abolish the Education Dept.--to the dismay of blacks and Hispanics. Now, Republicans are touring high schools, reading to preschoolers, and holding town meetings to plug initiatives such as vouchers, education savings accounts, and more money for charter schools.

VETO THREAT. And it may be working: Polls show Republicans are starting to make inroads on an issue Democrats have long owned. So the Dems are battling furiously to hold their turf. On Oct. 27, some 75 Democratic lawmakers visited classrooms around the country to promote their own goals, such as giving parents the right to choose their kids' public schools and providing money to repair crumbling buildings. And on Nov. 4, Senate Democrats succeeded in killing a GOP bill that would have given parents tax breaks on education savings accounts. President Clinton, meanwhile, is threatening to veto other GOP bills that establish vouchers or that block his plan for national reading and math standards.

What prompted Republicans to retool their education game plan? Fear. They were getting creamed by Democrats, who assailed the GOP for education budget cuts at a time when better schools are a top priority for voters. "It has exploded as an issue," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Besides, the GOP's harsh attacks on the Education Dept. and teacher unions turned voters off. Says Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who chairs a House education panel: "We have to demonstrate that we have appealing solutions."

That's why a crisp October morning in New Hampshire found Representative John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) playing teacher to eighth graders at Dover Middle School. The students listened attentively as he quizzed them about how laws get passed and what the federal budget covers. A few gutsy kids asked the first-termer how much time he spends raising campaign cash and whether he'll follow in his father's footsteps and become governor. Dropping in on classrooms, something he has done about 30 times this year, gives Sununu a chance to show the GOP cares about education. "People all over the country are concerned about education," says Sununu. "It's important that we have a positive position on how we can improve schools."

SLIPPERY SLOPE. The GOP now boasts an array of proposals geared mostly to helping parents sidestep a public education system that Republicans argue has failed. Among the most prominent GOP initiatives are tax breaks to pay for computers and other K-12 expenses at private or public schools, and more money for charter schools--public institutions that operate with wide autonomy. Such planks appeal to the GOP mainstream: suburban, middle-class whites.

The GOP also opposes national standards as the first step on a slippery slope toward a Washington-dictated curriculum. That plays well with the Republican Right and minorities. Conservatives who send their kids to religious schools fear Washington's meddling; black and Hispanic lawmakers worry that standards may be skewed against minorities.

But the centerpiece of GOP education policy is an old favorite--school tuition vouchers--dusted off and targeted at needy kids. "Thousands of low-income students are trapped in schools where they don't learn, where they aren't safe, and where no one with money would ever send their children," argues Representative James Talent (R-Mo.), co-sponsor of a voucher bill. With Gingrich readying a new assault on affirmative action next year, vouchers could help the GOP deflect charges that it is anti-minority. "This is their way of saying, `Giving children a good education is a better way to get ahead than affirmative action,"' says Nina Shokraii, education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Vouchers are catching on--even among Democrats--and could help the GOP break the Dems' lock on the urban minority vote. "Those we can rescue from the [public] system, we need to do so," says Flake, a leader of the Black Caucus and a minister who founded a private school in his New York City congressional district. Adds preacher Ellis: "This is not a race issue. It is a survival issue."

Pollster Mark J. Penn pegs support for vouchers for disadvantaged students at 69% of the general public and 68% of Democrats. "It's a potent issue," he says. A June survey by the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies found that 57% of blacks support vouchers, up 10 percentage points from a poll in January, 1996.

Democrats attack the GOP agenda as a threat to public education. "Theirs is a bumper-sticker solution that solves the problem for a few thousand kids," scoffs Representative Tim J. Roemer (D-Ind.), co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill to expand funds for charter schools. Still, Republicans have tapped the public's frustration with the status quo. "All the innovative ideas are coming from the Republican Party," says Gerald Reynolds, president of the Center for New Black Leadership in Washington. By giving voters more solutions for fixing education, the GOP is stealing Democratic thunder--and courting an important new constituency.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.